A multimodal exploration of Tennyson's 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'Julie Blake
This sequence of activities is designed to last several lessons. Its focus is on comparing the presentation of ideas, values or emotions in related texts. Its purpose is to develop a textured, historically contextualised understanding of Tennyson’s 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. This is developed by working with several related texts and images from the time, in facsimile, multimedia and traditional forms. It also uses an astonishing recording from the Poetry Archive website and additional supporting notes available there.
For students to explore through images a key Victorian idea about war (dulce et decorum est pro patria mori); to develop an awareness of historical context by reading a Crimean War ballad and a first hand news report; to read Tennyson's poem and compare it with images and texts encountered; and to explore the legacy of Tennyson’s poem and the validity of its enduring appeal.
Image of 'The fall of Sebastopal/Capture of the Malakoff Tower' currently available here.
Text of 'The Sufferings of the British Army in the Camp before Sebastopol', a ballad in facsimile form from the Bodleian Library collection, currently available here.
Text of the article from the London Times of November 14, 1854 dispatch, written by William Howard Russell from the front of the Crimean War. This is the article that immediately inspired Alfred Tennyson to write the poem of the same name, 'The Charge of the Light Brigade'. This is currently available in word-processed form here.
(Optional) Image of manuscript of Tennyson's poem in his handwriting currently available here.
Access to a BBC article commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Crimean War currently available here.
Teaching sequence of activities
Display an online image of 'The fall of Sebastopoal/Capture of the Malakoff Tower'. Allow time for students to absorb its details, then invite short descriptive responses, starting with one word and adding layers of detail. Using your imagination, what can you see, smell, hear, taste, touch? When looking at this image, what do you think? What do you feel? What do you want to do? Annotate or list responses. Move outwards from creative response to a more speculative analytical one: what do you think is happening here? Who is involved? When and where do you think this event took place? Why?
Give relevant contextual details: the Crimean War 1853-1856. This image shows French and Russian soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat at the Malakoff tower. In the Victorian era in which this war took place, it was commonly held that it is sweet and fitting to die for your country. What attitude to this idea does this picture suggest? How is this attitude suggested?
Introduce the table of ideas about war, values and emotions available as a download below. Dictionary work as needed to identify meanings of unfamiliar words, then invite paired discussion of the headings: what ideas about war do they hold? What do they value most in life? What emotion do they feel about war? Explore the range of views held in the class, and link to the idea that different texts will explore differing, competing and sometimes ambiguous ideas, values and emotions.
Read aloud (more than once) the broadside or broadsheet ballad 'The Sufferings of the British Army in the Camp before Sebastopol'. This is described thus: “Although the soldiers themselves are praised as "England's gallant soldiers" this is a song attacking the political and military leadership of the war”. Have students highlight the ideas, values and emotions in this text. Review responses to the ballad, comparing ideas, values and emotions with their own.
Read the article from the London Times of November 14, 1854 dispatch, written by William Howard Russell from the front of the Crimean War. Again, have students highlight the ideas, values and emotions. Then class discussion to explore and identify similarities and differences, extending this to include the painting too.
The Charge of the Light Brigade
Introduce the idea that Tennyson wrote this poem minutes after reading the Times article already discussed. You could look at the manuscript copy of the poem in Tennyson's handwriting. Remind students of the historical context of the poem, already explored through the ballad and newspaper article. You could also provide the summary of the battle given in the notes to the poem on the Poetry Archive webpage for the poem. Then read the poem and invite immediate responses. Then 3 further readings with time for students to make notes, in turn, on ideas about war, the values and the emotion. 3 readings should include the astonishing recording available on the Poetry Archive website of Tennyson himself reading the poem.
Discuss comparisons with the other two texts and painting and produce, as a class, a Venn diagram with 4 overlapping circles exploring the similarities and differences between them. Extend this to include discussion of what difference is made by the presentation of this war in the 4 different media we have considered: painting, broadsheet ballad, broadsheet news article, poem. Key questions might include: how do we respond to each form? What longevity does each form have? Who is the intended audience of each? What is the purpose of each? What sort of influence does each have on the ideas about war, values and emotions of their audience?
Introduce the idea that Tennyson’s poem is frequently anthologised, and appears frequently in surveys of people’s favourite poems. Explore why students think this might be and develop a set of initial ideas. Have students reading the BBC article commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Crimean War and highlighting/noting the points made here about the enduring appeal of Tennyson’s poem. Finish off with an evaluation of these ideas about the enduring appeal of Tennyson’s poem: to what extent do students find them convincing? You could do this as a “Room 101” style discussion with one person advocating expunging the poem from all records, and another defending it.
Listen to Andrew Motion's poem, 'The dog of the Light Brigade' for a different perspective! This recording is available on the Poetry Archive website.